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Spreading the American Dream
American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 1890-1945
By Emily S. Rosenberg
Hill and WangCopyright © 1982 Emily S. Rosenberg
All rights reserved.
INTRODUCTION: THE AMERICAN DREAM
THE COLUMBIAN EXPOSITION OF 1893
A SPECTACULAR World's Fair, the Columbian Exposition, opened in Chicago in 1893. Acres of classical buildings, constructed especially for the fair, created an urban wonderland; it glittered with artistic splendor and burgeoned with America's latest technological achievements. After a visit to this White City, the French novelist and critic Paul Bourget wrote: "Chicago, the enormous town we see expanding, the gigantic plant which grows before our eyes seems now in this wonderfully new country to be in advance of the age. But is not this more or less true of all America?"
Bourget's comment was the kind Americans liked to quote; the exposition's exhibitors displayed their hopes for their country and for the world. Contrived and temporary, this Dream City flaunted America's faiths and glossed over its contradictions. Glamour triumphed over decay; time seemed suspended near the peak of perfection. From John Winthrop to Ralph Waldo Emerson to Josiah Strong, many Americans had thought, or hoped, that their country had escaped from history, that America was not just another power that would rise and then decline but that it was the quintessential civilization that would permanently culminate some long progression toward human betterment. Here, in rhetoric, iron, and stone, were the ideas and products that Americans prized and believed others would gratefully accept. In the Dream City, America's most significant gifts to the twentieth-century world were already apparent: advanced technology and mass culture.
The amazing scientific and technological innovations of America's farmers — displayed in Agriculture Hall — overwhelmed viewers and demonstrated the United States' importance as an exporter of primary products. Impressive displays of wheat, corn, and other crops from the prairie states bespoke opulence and plenty. In this pavilion, at least, there was no mention of the overproduction, the falling prices, and the crushing debts plaguing the Midwest and attracting converts to the populist revolt.
Perched on a platform in one section of Agriculture Hall was a huge globe with an array of farm machines, all American-made, revolving around its circumference. America's preeminence in agricultural machinery was unmistakable, and manufacturers looked toward potential markets in the new and still-expanding farming frontiers of Manchuria, Siberia, Australia, Mexico, and Argentina. America's leading food processors, some already well known abroad, also displayed their latest techniques and products: Cudahy and Swift proudly showed beef extract; Gail Borden lined up cans of condensed milk; sugar refiners and soapmakers touted their innovations.
Transportation Hall showed off the "engines of progress" that had opened the prairies to commercial cultivation. Railroad companies built massive Grecian-style pavilions and used full-size models to illustrate the historical development of locomotives. The Pullman Company escorted visitors through an entire train, to show its luxurious sleeping and dining quarters. The railroad's prominent place at Chicago seemed appropriate: promoters presented the railroad as a major civilizing force, one bringing prosperity, communication, and understanding to the world.
The Pullman Company treated fairgoers to a large model of its other proud creation — the industrial town of Pullman. The neat workers' quarters, company stores, and cultural centers depicted an idyllic scene of industrial contentment. Within a few months, the great Pullman labor strike would mar the picture, permanently associating the town with class violence instead of harmony. But labor discontent, like farmers' revolts, had no place at Chicago. At the fair, Pullman was the promise of the future.
Other transportation exhibits heralded America's new world-wide role. Pneumatic conveyors promised to revolutionize retailing by eliminating bottlenecks in the distribution of goods. Elevators effortlessly transported people and goods. A model of a canal across Nicaragua showed how modern technology might bisect Central America and stimulate American trade with Asia. The International Navigation Company erected a full-size section of an ocean steamer, showing the numerous decks and the different classes of staterooms and dining rooms. Twenty thousand people a day visited this lavishly outfitted "ship," absorbing the idea that comfort and luxury were now the rule in ocean travel. The day of the American tourist traversing the globe was still in its infancy, but the crowds at Chicago indicated tourism's potential.
The vehicle exhibit lacked steam-, electric-, or petroleum-driven carriages, but future trends were evident all the same. American carriages were lighter and cheaper than European models. Unlike their competitors, they were, in the words of one commentator, made by "modern machinery and the systematic methods of large manufactories." They contrasted with the fine British coaches, which, the same American commentator noted, were "interesting on account of their style, long since out of fashion." Even before the automobile age, advanced technology and mass appeal distinguished America's transportation industry.
Machinery Hall also emphasized technological wizardry. There, the White City's massive power plant, run by Westinghouse's huge engine-dynamo units, generated electrical power in quantities never before produced. Oil, rather than coal, was used for fuel, and Standard Oil built a forty-mile experimental pipeline that carried the fuel into the fair. Fifteen electric motors distributed the electricity throughout the fairgrounds, clearly demonstrating advanced techniques of power transmission. Half this power flowed to the most amazing exhibit of all — Westinghouse's incandescent lighting system. Illuminating the entire fairgrounds and its buildings, this system constituted the largest central power station in the United States. Not to be outdone, General Electric erected a ten-foot, 6,000-pound searchlight — the largest in the world — and powered the Edison Tower of Light, a seventy-eight-foot shaft glowing with thousands of colored flashing lights. Chicago's fair awesomely demonstrated the new electrical age.
At Electricity Hall, power set in motion a mechanical world that seemed as marvelous in 1893 as it would seem commonplace in 1945. Most visitors got their first look at electric trolleys, long-distance phones, and electrical heaters. Edison's new kinetograph, in conjunction with a phonograph, visually reproduced an orator's movements and then synchronized these movements with the sound of his voice. G.E.'s elevated electric railroad safely speeded the huge crowds around the grounds. Other machinery exhibits highlighted Americans' talent for substituting technology for labor. All the fair's restaurants used dishwashing machines, and there were laundry and pressing machines, soapmaking machines, steamrollers, automatic sprinklers, street cleaners, and a machine that quickly weighed and bagged several tons of ground coffee a day. American sewing-machine companies such as Singer displayed improved versions of the home sewing machine. The Daily Columbian, a special World's Fair newspaper, spun off the latest steam-powered presses at the rate of eight hundred copies a minute. For one souvenir issue, workers placed pulp in a machine to make paper, composed the text on a linotype, printed, and distributed a finished newspaper — all in sixty-three minutes.
Most startling in their diversity were the special machines for making boots and shoes. An expert operator using an improved sewing machine could sew nine hundred pairs of shoes a day; a "rivet and stud" machine inserted ninety rivets and studs per minute; a heeling machine drove three hundred nails per minute; a "burnishing and bottom-polishing and uppercleaning" machine finished the shoe for market. In all, more than a score of different processes contributed to making a single shoe.
In contrast to the fair's technological originality, its artistic styles were imitative and familiar. Ironically, exposition planners, who defined art as the statuary and painting of an elite European tradition, refused to give a place to one of America's most successful and unique "artistic" creations: Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. But encamped outside the gates and across the street from the White City, the show attracted huge, enthusiastic crowds. An early yet fully developed expression of America's mass culture, Buffalo Bill's extravaganza became one of the Dream City's most popular exhibits. In Chicago, Americans flaunted the cheap mass products, the dazzling technology, and the alluring mass culture that, in the coming century, they would spread throughout the world.
THE IDEOLOGY OF LIBERAL-DEVELOPMENTALISM
This American dream of high technology and mass consumption was both promoted and accompanied by an ideology that I shall call liberal-developmentalism. Reflected in partial form by some of the 3,817 lecturers who spoke in 1893 at the World Congress Auxiliary to the Columbian Exposition, this ideology matured during the twentieth century. Liberal-developmentalism merged nineteenth-century liberal tenets with the historical experience of America's own development, elevating the beliefs and experiences of America's unique historical time and circumstance into developmental laws thought to be applicable everywhere.
The ideology of liberal-developmentalism can be broken into five major features: (1) belief that other nations could and should replicate America's own developmental experience; (2) faith in private free enterprise; (3) support for free or open access for trade and investment; (4) promotion of free flow of information and culture; and (5) growing acceptance of governmental activity to protect private enterprise and to stimulate and regulate American participation in international economic and cultural exchange.
To many Americans, their country's economic and social history became a universal model. In order to become a modern society, a nation needed extensive capital investment generated by foreign borrowing and by exports; development of educational, transportation, communication, and banking institutions; a steady supply of cheap labor; maximization of individual initiative for people deemed most efficient; wide-open land use and freewheeling environmental practices; and a robust private business sector solidly linked to capital-intensive, labor-saving technology. This blueprint, drawn from America's experience, became the creed of most Americans who dealt with foreign nations.
In the 1890s, this formula was closely related to a new sense of America's mission, one that had both religious and secular roots. Most Americans believed that Protestant Christianity was a spiritual precondition for modernization. The organizer of the Religious Congress at the exposition, for example, proclaimed that the sessions on religion would demonstrate the vigor of the new evangelical spirit in America and show that the divine purpose "of building up the Kingdom of Christ in America is to engage with fresh ardor in efforts to Christianize India and Africa, Turkey and China." Participants and spectators frequently called the World's Fair the Divine Exposition or the New Jerusalem, believing that its display of America's products and spiritual vigor presaged a new Christian age in which all peoples of the world would progress toward prosperity. Those heralding Christianity as a vehicle for both spiritual and material development also generally sounded themes of the "white man's burden." John Fiske, who spoke at the Congress on Evolution, extolled Anglo-Saxon productivity as he called for a worldwide extension of American institutions and industrial civilization. Religious duty and national destiny fused together. Other speakers, particularly at the Congress on Education, hailed new secular agents of progress. The trend toward technical education and professional specialization, observers believed, provided the expertise that would soon alleviate most social ills. Education in the new social sciences would enable people to eradicate poverty and build stronger social bonds at home and abroad.
The organizer of the World Congress, Charles C. Bonney, proclaimed that the purpose of the congress was the promotion of "the progress, prosperity, unity, peace, and happiness of the world." Deeply imbued with new theories that applied evolutionary principles to society, Bonney and other speakers clearly believed that American models provided guides to the earthly millennium. Whether speakers emphasized Protestant Christianity, Anglo-Saxonism, or professional expertise as the most important ingredient for global social and economic development, most did view America as the vanguard of world progress. Their faith in the ability of Americans to perfect and apply laws of progressive betterment and to uplift those lower on the evolutionary scale would reverberate throughout the twentieth century.
Belief in America's mission helped drive its internationalist impulse. As long as internationalists believed the world was destined to follow American patterns, they could remain confident that there was no fundamental conflict between national advancement and global progress. A strong internationalist spirit and an accompanying faith in American-led progress, the two most important themes of the Columbian Exposition, would recur again and again.
Central to the developmental process were tenets drawn from nineteenth-century liberalism. Seldom explicit in World's Fair speeches, which tended to explore specific elements of progress — such as new roles for women, industrial education, the spread of temperance, and scientific advance — liberal assumptions nevertheless underlay most Americans' views of progress. Many historians, such as Louis Hartz and N. Gordon Levin, have convincingly demonstrated how liberal beliefs drew the boundaries of significant public debate and have explored the content and consequences of the American liberal tradition.
Encouraging individual initiative through private enterprise was an important canon of nineteenth-century liberalism. Liberalism, of course, grew up in opposition to artificial, statist monopoly or government-conferred privilege. Freedom, in the American tradition, meant absence of the autocratic state and the full play of competing individual initiatives through private ownership. Private enterprise was free because it was not shackled by an overbearing governmental structure. And celebrants of the American system generally credited private business, above all, with producing rapid industrial development and increasing abundance. To be sure, nineteenth-century government, particularly states and localities, did not remain aloof from the process of economic growth. But government intervened in the economy primarily in order to release the energies of the private sector. Government kept the pump of American business in working order, but it did not raise and lower the handle.
Excerpted from Spreading the American Dream by Emily S. Rosenberg. Copyright © 1982 Emily S. Rosenberg. Excerpted by permission of Hill and Wang.
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